An environmental services employee at Vanderbilt University Medical Center was the hospital’s first frontline worker to receive the COVID-19 vaccination.
Tesha Akins has been cleaning rooms in Vanderbilt’s growing COVID-19 unit since the day it was established. She was one of just three who volunteered for the risky job in March.
“We just left it in God’s hands, prayed about it. We all pray together every day,” she says. “We push each other. We’re going to cry together. We’re going to stop each other from quitting. So we just became a team and just kept pushing.”
VUMC held a public vaccination of five employees on Thursday morning, just after a press event with Gov. Bill Lee. But mass vaccinations won’t start until Friday, because shipments from Pfizer arrived later than expected.
On Friday, Vanderbilt will start vaccinating nearly 9,000 frontline employees. It’s one of 28 medical sites to receive initial doses, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
The state received nearly a thousand doses on Monday but decided to hold them in reserve rather than shipping them to a hospital in need. Because of the delayed shipments, the first person in the state to knowingly receive the Pfizer vaccine was a cancer surgeon in Nashville who had participated in the clinical trial but found out Thursday he had gotten the placebo. Pfizer offered all health care workers in the trial the actual vaccine, and Dr. William Polk took it late Wednesday.
But over the coming days, hospitals will administer virtually all of the 56,000 doses initially allocated to the state.
Vanderbilt, which is one of the largest in Tennessee, has treated some of the most critically ill COVID-19 patients in the Southeast. Three floors now house COVID patients, and a second COVID ICU was created in recent weeks.
Lisa Flemmons is the lead nurse practitioner in the COVID unit and one of the first five to be vaccinated.
“It’s like coming up for air, like I can breathe. It’s emotional,” Flemmons says. “It’s been the most trying year of my career, and I’m just elated that there seems to be a means to an end for the first time.”
After the event, she returned to her job in the COVID unit, which currently has more patients, and sicker patients, than Vanderbilt has had throughout the pandemic.